Open invitations to Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo
went out weeks ago, so there’s a chance your family already took a trip to this innocently melodramatic family drama.
Twentieth Century Fox has been sneak previewing Zoo on select weekends, understanding that they have a kind-hearted feature entering a competitively cutthroat frame of Christmas-time releases. Getting ahead of the curve was a wise decision.
The “we” in We Bought a Zoo refers to Matt Damon’s character, Benjamin, a widower who gambles on his family’s future – as well as their present – by moving his teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford) and adolescent daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) to the country where they attempt to resurrect a struggling zoo.
Crowe has explored men in transition, both personal and professional, in films like Jerry Maguire, Elizabethtown and Say Anything, though this is the first time his protagonist has been a father. The material, as a result, might speak directly to dads in the audience who find themselves spinning similar plates. (It sure did for this dad.)
But Crowe – and his studio – no doubt would like Zoo to be a family affair. And it can be, to a certain extent, with reservations. So, let’s throw some Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on the record player, feed the animals and figure out when you can watch Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo with your kids.
Red Flags: “Everybody says you’re a dick, but I don’t believe it.”
Damon, in a recent interview on behalf of Zoo, explained that Crowe sold him on the project by convincing the Oscar winner that he had no intention of telling the “Disney-fied” version of this story. By that, he means you easily could picture a zanier alternate version of Zoo with Tim Allen or Eddie Murphy in the lead. Let that sink in for a moment.
Crowe, instead, embraces the complicated reasons why a man enduring a personal storm might take a significant risk to try and right his family’s ship, and it’s in those gray areas where parents -- perhaps expecting the “Disney-fied” version of Zoo -- could find cause for concern.
For starters, Damon’s character still mourns the loss of his wife, and Crowe – in several beautiful scenes – demonstrates the pain and heartache of the emptiness that’s plaguing Benjamin. He can’t go into the café where he and his wife first met. He plays a slideshow of photographs on his laptop late at night, which transition into a sweetly sad flashback of the family during better times.
That loss also affects Dylan, whose teenage-appropriate aggression aimed toward his overwhelmed father is one of two conflicts driving Zoo toward its conclusion. (The other revolves around Damon’s financial abilities to keep the zoo and its employees, played by Scarlett Johansson and Patrick Fugit, afloat.)
Dylan is a troubled kid, whose darkness comes out in his morbid art. He’s at odds with his father through most of the film. And while their personal conflict will be resolved (more on that in the Green Lights section), the contentious relationship could be a bit too heated for young kids who’ve come to Zoo to see Damon interact with cute animals.
By no means do I fault Crowe for taking a more realistic approach to the human elements found in Zoo. Quite the opposite, actually. He’s to be commended for finding the honesty – uncomfortable as it often can be – in Benjamin’s difficult situation.
Three other minor Red Flags caught my eye that parents might want to consider before bringing their kids to Zoo. The language isn’t over the top, but Crowe isn’t shy about peppering in a curse word here and there. A significant subplot surrounds one of the zoo’s oldest tigers, and – spoiler alert – he doesn’t make it to the end credits. Think about if that will bother your child. Also, Crowe kind of spills the beans about the Easter Bunny. Consider yourself warned.
Green Lights: “I’m your fan, man. Don’t you know that by now?”
If you’ve seen Crowe’s previous films, though, you know he’s a storyteller who works from the heart. This is the guy who imagined John Cusack holding the boom box over his head outside Ione Skye’s bedroom window. He handpicked Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” for that camaraderie-establishing moment in Almost Famous. He’s the gifted individual who essentially earned an Oscar nomination for penning three unforgettable words: “You. Complete. Me.”
Zoo isn’t the exception to the Crowe rule. There are plenty of uplifting, emotional moments to discover along the way as Crowe gently pushes the buttons of mourning, of loss, and of love. The film isn’t without its blemishes, but Crowe effectively smothers them with a cozy blanket of family warmth, and Damon all but tucks in the corners as a good soul who’s anxious to do right by his family and his new zoo employees.
The above quote – a tearjerker – comes from Damon as he opens up to his teenage son, letting him know that they are not enemies, as several teenagers sometimes feel about their parents. I’ll never understand why teens go through the phase where they hate their parents. I know I had problems with my dad. Seriously problems. Why couldn’t I see that he was supportive of me all along? Will my sons know how much I support them, how I’m easily their biggest fan?
Zoo’s brightest Green Lights shine across the protective nature Damon projects as a parent. There’s an emotional strength that comes from knowing what’s best for your kids, whether it be a change of scenery, a sense of responsibility, or a simple hug.
Beyond that, Crowe simply remembers how to make a sweet story. He finds a new “Lipnicki” in young Jones, an adorable ginger with an endearing lisp. He once again demonstrates an uncanny knack for finding the perfect music track for the emotions he’s trying to coax out of a given scene. And he allows his huge heart to prevail in a moving coda that, while manipulative, helped me buy into this sentimental tone poem to simple destiny.
Why did I like We Bought a Zoo?
All of those Green Lights sound like themes that are geared toward parents more than kids. There’s a reason for that. As mentioned, this isn’t “Matt Damon and a Monkey” (though Fugit’s character does keep a monkey on his shoulder, which kids might find cute). Parents thinking Zoo is the next Dr. Doolittle or, worse, Kevin James’ Zookeeper will be surprised at the emotional paths taken by Crowe and his crew.
That being said, Zoo comfortably serves as an introduction to Crowe’s warm, open-hearted method of storytelling, and parents with older kids seeking comforting, uplifting and honest stories that don’t shackle themselves to fairy-tale logic or cartoonish comedy will appreciate what they find on screen.
We Bought a Zoo will play parents like fiddles. But the sentimental themes, and mature emotional challenges, offset the kid-friendly animal scenes. It best appeals to kids age 10 and up, who will love the zoo-restoration scenes, dig on the sweet teen romance between Dylan and an effervescent Elle Fanning, and likely go home to make their own mixed tapes based on Crowe’s inspirational material.
If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That With My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Hugo, The Princess Bride, The Monster Squad and Elf, to name just a few.